The Handmaid's Tail by Margrethe Atwood and The Bloody Room by Angela Carter

Topics: Fairy Tales

The following sample essay on The Handmaid’s Tail by Margrethe Atwood and The Bloody Room by Angela Carter. Fairy tales have been used to entertain and teach children for hundreds of years. Feminist argue that fairy tales perpetuate the patriarchal stereotype of female roles such as motherhood, domesticity and submission. I have decided to discuss The Handmaids Tail, by Margret Atwood and The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter, as both explore women’s oppression and are both influenced by fairy tales.

I will examine how these pieces of literature promote women’s equality and show a different view of femininity.

Traditional fairy tales were originally verbally told to entertain and teach members of community morality and societies accepted gender roles. Within a tale there are strict roles played by the characters. Feminists would argue that the patriarchal nature taught boys to take on the leadership role, to be strong and protecting. Women on the other hand were taught to be passive and gentle, and would be saved by some dashing prince, whom they would marry and live with happily ever after; stories conditioned them to rely on men rather than trying to do things for themselves.

The other role for females would be the evil witch, the evil queen of course who would be overcome by the prince.

The Handmaids Tale was written at a time when conservative values were on the rise. Regan’s 1980’s election campaign was backed by the Christian Right. There was a push to regress to 1950’s gender roles and conservative moral values to get back to the ‘Golden Years’ of America but this impacted women’s rights and freedoms which were now under threat.

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Although the Handmaids Tail is fictional it is not hard to see the influences of the political climate of the time within its pages. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, originally published in 1985. Although it is a Handmaids Tale it is in no way like a traditional fairy tale as there is no magic and no prince to save the day.

It shows the oppression and abuse of women in a fictional patriarchal society of Gilead. Everything that modern feminists consider great victories- contraception, female voting and abortion legalisation- have all been reversed and women have no rights in the male dominated society. It is set in near future New England where the government have been overthrown. The story focusses on Offred a handmaid living in this totalitarian society. Due to depleting fertility rates Handmaids are assigned to bear children for wealthy couples, this reflected 1980’s fears of declining birth rates and the dangers of nuclear power. All freedom is stripped from Offred and the other Handmaids who are prisoners whose every move is observed. Offred isn’t allowed out alone but is able to complete outside chores when accompanied by Ofglen.

Ofglen is her double image, in dress, speech and mannerisms resembling doppelgangers from gothic fairy tales. All women’s rights are removed, as Gilead believes that women should be subservient to men and only be concerned with bearing children “we are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices”. Offred similar to leading female roles in fairy tales is submissive, but this submission has not only been enforced by the patriarchal regime Offred has come to internalise this oppression and accepts her standing. The epilogue in The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the distant future after the fall of Gilead. The epilogue reveals the novel is made from a collection of tapes Offred has left behind; it is an oral account similar to how traditional fairy Tales were passed on.

Pieixoto is the professor who is giving a speech about the tapes. He explains his difficulty transcribing the tapes, putting them in order and proving authenticity. Unlike in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ it becomes clear Offred does not have the last words of her own story instead it is as much of ‘His’ story just like many traditional fairy tales such as those written by Brothers Grimm in a time where women were seen as accessories to men . Even though it is obvious the regime of Gilead is over, by using the epilogue Atwood seems to be providing a warning against similar abuses happening in our own lives. Although the book may seem beyond the bounds of possibility Atwood informs us she was careful to use reality as a basis for the book, “I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings have not already done”.

Listening to Piexoto’s speech the reader can draw on real events such as HIV, nuclear plant accidents and polygamy to question their own realities, just as traditional fairy tales provide us with teachings. Piexoto describes the Gilead regime as ‘genius’ and goes onto to say “…we must be cautious about passing moral judgements upon Gilead” belittling the systematic abuses of women under the regime. Piexoto is also speaking from privilege, he is a well education male who doesn’t go as far as condemning what happened in Gilead and summarises it as a “cultural misunderstanding”. This bias leaves the reader suspicious of how reliable a narrator he is.

Piexoto is frustrated as Offred doesn’t leave many clues “she did not have the instincts of a reporter or spy”, but Offreds account was more concerned with feelings and experiences, trying to make sense of it. Offreds account leaves the reader believing her story as we sense she wants to tell her truth and doesn’t at the time know who her audience will be “I am telling you this story I will your existence. I tell therefore you are”. Her verbal account of her truth gives her some power and believability unlike in the traditional fairy tale of Snow white, the perfect princess, passive and innocent that has no real motivating force or no story of her own; she is easily moulded and manipulated by the narrator.

Atwood makes other references to fairy tales, handmaids dressed in red robes makes Offred imagine Little Red Riding Hood, “some fairy tale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger.”, she is linking her situation to a well-known traditional fairy tale to try and comprehend the cruel world she is living in. Little Red Riding Hood continues to mirror the story, “In the curved hallway mirror, I flit past, a red shape at the edge of my own field of vision, a wraith of red smoke.”, the alliteration and fricative sounds focuses the reader’s attention to these lines bringing to mind the well-known fairy tale. The commander can be seen as the wolf, the Aunts as the evil Aunts who advise Offred to stay away from the wolves (Men).

They also warn if she were taken she must be to blame. Serena Joy can also be seen as the step mother, older, sterile and jealous. In traditional fairy tales there are only two types of women, beautiful, naive and passive or ugly and evil. Little Red Riding Hood is a warning and echo’s The Handmaids Tale, little red is given advice to walk very quietly and not to talk to strangers, just as the aunts advise Offred. She should behave just as society expects, obedient and quiet or she will suffer the consequences. Just as Gilead viewed sexuality as a sin, it could be argued Little Red Riding hood’s purpose was to condition the reader to view female sexuality as dangerous and punishable by wolf (man).

Another example of fairy tale influence is when Offred daringly creeps out of her room to go searching in the night. She is not looking to escape but to find a small piece of freedom, she sees herself “In the wood at midnight…seeking a magic flower” this account makes it seem almost as if she is willing to allow her story to become a fairy tale in order to be saved, it is Nick who she finds that awakens her just like sleeping beauty. Atwood cleverly uses intertextuality between Handmaids Tail and fairy tales in order to create a sense of familiarity.

The Bloody Chamber was written by Angela Carter and published in 1979. Margaret Thatcher had just come to power in the UK, although she was the first female Prime Minister, she had conservative values that did not align with feminist beliefs so this wasn’t seen as a feminist victory. The year also marked the end of the feminist movement’s known as “second wave.” the name given by the Australian writer Germaine Greer in her book The Female Eunuch. The 1970s feminist movement brought about big changes with regard to women’s political, economic, and social power. Carter may want to use her book The Bloody Chamber to remind us of these ideas by portraying strong independent females and in this way breaking free of gendered stereotypes and keep the feminist movement alive.

The story is a rewrite of the fairy tale Bluebeard and examines themes of marriage, sexuality and gender. It tells the tale of women’s seduction and escape from her abusive husband. The moral of the story was curiosity of women would lead to retribution (Helen Simpson 2006). Carter works both within and against the constraints of the traditional fairy tale but makes adaptations to challenge patriarchal stereotypes of women. Although it is a rewrite of a traditional fairy tale The Bloody chamber is not for children. Carter uses a range of writing techniques to develop this dark, gothic, highly sexualised and sadistic tale. “The walls of this stark torture chamber were the naked rock; the gleamed as if they were sweating from fright” the personification of the rocks emphasises the horrifying acts that are committed in the chamber and the malicious nature of them adding a chilling feel to the narrative.

The story steeped in gothic imagery similar to many fairy tales, “With its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, [and] its spiked gate” and hints at Marquis being almost supernatural, “moved as softly as if all his shoes had soles of velvet”. They read like horror stories with happy endings, a horror story is exactly what many gothic novels are grim and violent. The long sentence structure used by Carter perpetuates the feeling of anxiety and anticipation that the narrator is feeling. This nervousness supports the Gothic genre as it creates mystery as to what is going to happen in the rest of the novel.

Carter also uses the colour red to emphasise passion, “wrapped in tissue paper and red ribbon” and her engagement ring, that is “fire opal” in a “leather box lined with crimson” and the colour white to resemble innocents, as the train takes her “through the night … away from the white, enclosed quietude of [her] mother’s apartment”. She later uses the colour red to evoke uneasiness and horror; his lips are “strangely red”. There is also great detail in descriptions providing the upmost horror in our imaginations.

The main character from the Bloody Chamber is never named and Just as in traditional Fairy Tales she is young and innocent sees her future in marriage. Replying to her mother when asked if she loves Marquis, “I’m sure I want to marry him” showing her socially conditioned female expectations. She is an innocent virgin about to submit to Marques‘s desires, “’I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away”. Carter uses erotic and graphic language to explore sexuality but this has upset some feminist critiques who argue The bloody Chamber perpetuates the sexual objectification of women as Makinen describes Carter as, “..rewriting the tales within the straight jacket of their original structure”.

The narrator realises Marques sees her as a sexual object, “I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh”. And sees herself as Marques does, innocent and vulnerable, “The white dress, the frail child within it”. Here we sense a loss of identity, perhaps through marriage. But the mirrors help her break free from her constraints. The mirrors also show her transition from a patriarchal female to her seeing her true self and she realises it was her “innocence that captivated him”. She becomes aware this innocence is socially conditioned and starts to see herself differently, “A dozen vulnerable, appealing girls reflected in as many mirrors…if he had come to me in bed I would have strangled him”. She no longer accepts the conditioned values that were forced upon her, not wanting to be innocent or naive.

When she finds herself in the bloody chamber, she remarks, “Until that moment, this spoiled child did not know she had inherited nerves and a will from [her] mother.” showing how she sees herself as strong and independent like her mother. Unlike in Bluebeard, her mother is a strong female character rather than having her brothers come to her rescue. She is described as powerful and merciless; the opposite of female stereotypical roles in traditional Fairy Tales, “A wild thing…skirts tucked around her waist…as if she had been Medusa”, He is overrun by the women “Impotent at last (as the) dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves”.

Here, Carter is referring to breaking free from predetermined stereotypes and realising that she does not need a man to survive unlike other fairy tales where she would be saved by a handsome prince. Breaking the norms of fairy tales ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is narrated by the heroine in comparison to an impartial third person that is more commonly associated with fairy tales. This allows for the heroine to have a voice, enabling her to tell her own story challenges this patriarchal stereotype further empowering the female figure. The moral of Carters version of bluebeard is that being a passive subservient wife can lead to death and is not a virtue like in traditional fairy tales. Fairy tales have been used to teach both moral values as well as patriarchal gender roles. We have learned both Atwood and Carter are not only an exception to this but have used their literature to tell a different more empowering story. It is clear Atwood and Carter have used Fairy Tales in different ways.

The Bloody Chamber is a Fairy Tale rewrite that explores different possibilities and Atwood uses some themes from traditional Fairy Tales to tell her story. I believe Atwood is using her novel to explore the idea of social regression and allow it to serve as a warning, references of fairy tales are embedded throughout and she uses them to reiterate the social conditioning of women. Angela Carter on the other hand works within realms of Fairy Tales and looks at what could have happened within the original version. She challenges traditional patriarchal gender roles of women, empowering the main female characters to find their true self, sexuality and ultimately supporting readers to do the same.

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The Handmaid's Tail by Margrethe Atwood and The Bloody Room by Angela Carter. (2019, Nov 22). Retrieved from

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